Mental health workers for Kaiser Permanente have authorized a five-day strike, which is expected to take place in mid-December. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Kaiser mental health workers authorize five-day strike

Around 4,000 Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians across California have authorized a five-day strike, and say the healthcare giant is failing to live up to an agreement to increase staffing and reduce patient waiting times.

The clinicians, around 100 of whom work in San Francisco, have been working without a contract since September, according to the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

Kaiser was fined $4 million by the state Department of Managed Health Care in 2013 for violating state laws requiring that patients receive timely access to mental health care, one of the largest such fines the agency has ever imposed. Follow up reports by the agency in 2015 and 2017 found that while Kaiser had increased staffing, patients were still experiencing long waits for appointments.

State officials and Kaiser reached a settlement in 2017 that included a three-year outside monitoring program for mental health services.

Despite this agreement, which includes the threat of further fines, union officials allege that delays and understaffing continue to be a problem.

“This ultimately comes down to resources,” union President Sal Roselli said in a statement. “Kaiser has $42 billion in cash and investments, but it underfunds its mental health care services to the point that overworked clinicians are leaving in drovese and patients with serious conditions wait weeks for appointments or are pushed into group therapy.”

John Nelson, vice president of communications, said Kaiser is putting plans in place to maintain access and services for patients in the event of a strike, and noted that the holiday season is a time when demand for mental health services is particularly high.

“Strikes are not an effective bargaining tactic and they put patients, members and employees in a difficult situation unnecessarily,” he said.

“It’s especially disappointing that the leadership of NUHW would threaten to call a strike during this time of year.”

Nelson said Kaiser has made “tremendous progress to improve access, whether in person, over the phone, or through our integrated primary care model,” increasing the number of therapists by 30 percent since 2015 and working to hire more, while also investing in its facilities.

A date has not been set for the strike, but it is likely to take place in mid-December, according to the union.

This story has been updated to include a statement from Kaiser Permanente.

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